Cults All Around You

posted by Madame Bubby

I was doing my usual scrolling on Twitter the other day, and I came across a news item on a cult I had never heard of before, which masked as a theater company!

According to the link above and other sources, the leader of this cult is a former actress, Sharon Gans, who starred in the 1970s film Slaughterhouse Five. In 1978, she and someone named Alex Horn ran out of San Francisco a theater company called Theater of All Possibilities, but it folded because of scandals and later resurfaced in New York City in 1980s as an outfit called Odyssey Study Group.
 

Gans cult articles
Gans cult articles (Source: A Cult Survivor's Handbook)

The Odyssey Study Group still puts on theatrical performances, but its members primarily focus on following the teachings of philosophers George Ivanovich Gurdjieff and his protege P.D. Ouspensky, who believe that the path to self-development involves labor and intentional suffering. The philosophy one could characterize as a form of gnostic dualism, as it claims most persons are living in a “sleep state” until awakened by learning esoteric principles taught by an elite persons, in this case, Gans, who is practically worshipped as someone one who gained a higher level of consciousness.
 

P.D. Ouspensky
P.D. Ouspensky

The link details the all too familiar verbal, physical, and financial abuse of members characteristic of cults, but after doing some research on Rick Ross' excellent cult education website, I also discovered that the cult does not allow African-Americans or LGBTQ persons. Apparently they aren't “pure” enough, though I did not find out the exact reasoning. Thus, if a member of the group attempted to recruit me in a coffee shop (the typical first step), I would be instantly rejected.

Why am I bring this point up? Cults are certainly in the news these days, especially if celebrities are involved. I am thinking specifically of the NXIVM pyramid scheme/sex slave cult, even more notorious because of the involvement of Allison Mack. Yet, what is really fascinating and also frightening is how these cults mask as other types of groups and ideologies, transmuting them into times and spaces of abuse.
 

NXIVM cult
NXIVM cult (Source: meaww.com)

I've come very close to cults, because cults prey on those they see as vulnerable to their “I/We alone can save you” mission. When I was in high school, a girl approached me and asked if I wanted to go to a movie. I thought she was asking me on a date, and to be frank, I was shocked, social outcast I was. When I asked where the movie was playing, she said it was being shown at some youth group. I asked my parents if I could go, and they said yes. I possess very little memory of the incident, other than persons sitting in folding chairs holding Bibles and giving the group money. On the way home (I got a ride home from the group members), I began to feel violently ill. Perhaps I sensed something was off. When my parents found out I had given the group money, they called the girl's parents. No more "youth group movies" for me.

I also briefly in college joined a Catholic charismatic group after a recommendation by a nun (she is no longer a nun, by the way; she left and got married). Catholic charismatics speak in tongues, claiming that it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. I remember lots of psychological manipulation in an "inner healing" session, and I noticed that persons in the group, called The Children of Light, tended to hang out only with others in the group. I got the sense this group somehow thought they were special, or "the elect" in a kind of antinomian way, as opposed to those mundane Catholics who were not so gifted. And what is even more frightening: one of the president's Supreme Court judgeship picks, Amy Coney Barrett, was associated with a community called People of Praise, which started out as one of those charismatic groups.
 

Speaking in tongues
Speaking in tongues (Source: Northwest Catholic)

And, I found out as well, what looked like yet another yoga place in the Clark and Diversey neighborhood, Body & Brain Yoga (now closed), which taught a Korean physical exercise philosophy called Dahn Yoga. The Dahn Yoga organization, among other abuses, charged exorbitant fees for retreats and even was involved in a wrongful death suit.
 

Dahn Yoga CNN report
Dahn Yoga (Source: CNN.com)

And then there was a meeting I went to with a friend from college and someone she knew, which in hindsight I found out was some pyramid scheme. I remember being hectored to take a course which would change my life. The friend of a friend gave them a lot of money that night. By that time, I had wised up. I knew I was vulnerable because of my sexuality and socioeconomic status, but I also was educated enough academically and experientially to both know and intuit the specific time and space of a cult.

The problem is many persons do not wise up, especially in situations of personal anxiety, or, particularly in the current cultural situation, public anxiety. And many persons are what I would call seekers, looking for an ultimate answer, a total experience, where struggle will end, but never really finding whatever they are looking for. Cults and cult leaders prey upon their fears and insecurities, usually offering a dangerous us vs. them mentality that justifies the abuses.

My experiences, and the experiences of others (as seekers and the sought), have shown me that possibilities for spiritual growth and experience exist, but no one person or one idea is all possibilities, and making something possible does not make you better than others and thus give you license to do harm.

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LGBTQ Rights are Human Rights

 

posted by Madame Bubby

As the Supreme Court hears seminal cases that may determine the right of LGBTQ persons to work and live without discrmination, I found this quote in a recent article on the first time LGBTQ persons spoke at the Democratic National convention. McGovern was a Democratic candidate, and in the Catholic Democratic households I grew up in, he was our candidate. But of course I was growing up without any knowledge of persons who did not love heteronormatively.
 

Madeline Davis
Image Source: qweencity.com

Madeline Davis, a pioneering lesbian activist who was a cofounder of the Mattachine Society and one of the first university professors to offer classes about lesbians, made this speech:

"My name is Madeline Davis. I am an elected delegate from the 37th Congressional District, Buffalo, New York. I am a woman. I am a lesbian. We are the minority of minorities. We belong to every race and creed, both sexes, every economic and social level, every nationality and religion. We live in large cities and in small towns, but we are the untouchables in American society. We have suffered the gamut of oppression, from being totally ignored or ridiculed, to having our heads smashed and our blood spilled in the street. Now we are coming out of our closets and onto the convention floor to tell you, the delegates, and to tell all gay people throughout America that we are here to put an end to our fears – our fears that people will know us for who we are – that they will shun and revile us, fire us from our jobs, reject us from our families, evict us from our homes, beat us and jail us. And for what? Because we have chosen to love each other."

What is particularly telling about this speech, from those heady early days of gay liberation, is that the content is still frighteningly relevant. Everything she has claimed LGBTQ persons suffer, essentially, a social death, is still occurring, even with laws that have been created, at the bare minimum, to allow, yes just allow, LGBTQ persons to subsist in our country. Subsist, but not enjoy, the freedoms most Americans have long taken for granted.

The fact that the cases the Supreme Court is hearing now still starkly reveal that placing one's human rights in the hands of other humans shows that freedom and human dignity do indeed hang on a thread. The rainbow flag and the United States flag are literally fragile and it just takes one match to burn them.
 

Rainbow flag flying with an American flag
Image Source: NBC News

LGBTQ persons can get married; they can tweet from their phones. But these freedoms are dead ends unless everyone embraces with a full heart, and not just understands from a distance, that no one is safe until everyone is safe to live as whole persons who can love without fear.

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September 12, 1985: Remembering the Infamous Carol's Speakeasy Raid in Chicago

posted by Madame Bubby


The raid on Stonewall of course has become an iconic event because of its social and historical ramifications, but recently LGBTQ historians, including many who publicize history on social media platforms such as Twitter, have called attention to similar events before and after Stonewall. Often the goal of such histories is uncovering marginalized narratives of oppression and liberation that can frame our own interpretations of not just those people and events, but also give a valued context for the present-day legal, social, and cultural challenges to honor and justice that LGBTQ persons still face.

One raid which attained notoriety, mostly because it showed how the politics of the gay Chicago community was becoming very much intertwined overall with mainstream politics, occurred on September 12, 1985.
 

Carol's Speakeasy poster
Image Source: http://chicago.gopride.com/entertainment/column/index.cfm/col/2523

A group called NEMEG, Northwestern Metropolitan Enforcement Group, which consisted of officers from various north and northwestern suburbs, raided a popular gay bar, Carol's Speakeasy, located at 1355 N. Wells Street (that strip still at that point in LGBTQ Chicago history was the center of a vibrant gay nightlife). NEMEG was ostensibly looking for evidence of drugs and drug dealing.

According to David Boyer of Touche and Bijou and a noted figure in Chicago's gay community, who was then employed by Carol's (his first year as manager), the bar was hosting a wrestling promotion night: “We had put out mats on the dance floor and guys would challenge each other to wrestle. Had about maybe 50 or so people in the house.”

Also according to David Boyer, whose account I quote and paraphrase for much of this blog and which generally corroborates what even the conservative Chicago Tribune reported, the Chicago police were not involved; and, as one shall see, this is a most significant, telling detail.

David describes how this, I would claim, vigilante group “stormed the front door, guns drawn,” and that they also broke in through the back. These persons were not wearing any type of identifying uniform, and did not even identify themselves.

Everyone in the bar was forced to gather together and lay face down on the dance floor for a period of several hours. NEMEG members would hit or shove the face of anyone back down to the floor if they even unintentionally looked up.

NEMEG meanwhile searched the offices and serving areas behind the bars, looking for drugs. David mentions that they were even throwing around match books, claiming these contained packages of drugs.

In a manner reminiscent of pre-Stonewall raids, these persons took each person, questioned them, and, most significantly, photographed them. Everyone eventually was forced to leave the bar; no one was arrrested. David Boyer refused to leave after identifying himself as the manager, but they still did not inform him of their identity.

After what seemed an interminable time of chaos and violence, Chicago police did show up, but they did nothing to stop what was happening. Nothing; one could claim they were deliberately ignoring the many legal violations that were occurring for reasons ranging from homophobia to some unwritten code that forbade them from “telling” on their suburban officer comrades.

NEMEG did claim they found drugs on the premises, but they could not determine who brought them.

According to David, at the same time the raid occurred, a couple of employees were arrested at their homes and charged with drug dealing.

This incident did not end up being a narrative memory of injustice and degradation.

By the middle 1980s, the gay community in Chicago had gained enough political power, even during this uncertain time when AIDS was beginning to decimate its members.

Thus, those affected by this raid filed a civil lawsuit against these suburban officers, focusing on clear violations of the law, such as not identifying themselves as police and forcibly taking photographs of the bar patrons.
 

Windy City Times article about Carol's Speakeasy lawsuit
Image Source: http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Windy-City-Times-30th-anniversary-issue-Coverage/52880.html

According to a report in the September 16, 1986 of the Chicago Tribune:
 

"This is one of the most massive violations of civil rights we have seen in Chicago in the last decade," said Harvey Grossman, Illinios legal director of the ACLU.

"Over 50 men were subjected to this course of conduct. They were all ordered to lie on the floor; they were subjected to illegal searches; they were interrogated against their will and required to disclose information about their backgrounds; they were all photographed and none was arrested.

"What the agents did was to take the occasion of serving an arrest warrant on the bartender and turn it into a raid on all who were present at the time," Grossman said.

By 1989, the parties reached an accord, according to a report in the August 18, 1989 issue of the Chicago Tribune. Harvey Grossman in this article makes a telling point: "Although gays have long been subject to police harassment, this is the first time a group of gay men has successfully joined together to obtain damages from law enforcement agencies," Grossman said.

The above is a story of injustice, but also a story of moral courage and faith that the justice system does indeed work, even against those who are supposedly responsible for upholding that its laws are enforced equitably and honorably. In this case, the human rights of the manager and patrons of Carol's were dishonored and dehumanized that night, and though the terms of the settlement did include financial compensation, the real issue is that no one is above the law, and this law is based on the premise that persons are innocent until proven guilty.

Currently, one cannot assume in the case of vulnerable, marginalized populations that their human rights will be respected, and that the justice system will uphold them. I think it's important, overall, to frame this raid as a #NeverAgainIsNow moment that the LGBTQ communities need to take to heart, not only as a warning, but as call for persons to emulate the moral courage David Boyer showed that night.

Sources: Chicago Tribune reports (see hyperlinks); eyewitness account from David Boyer received via email; https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/02/queer-clout-in-chicago-telling-gay-history-beyond-stonewall-and-the-castro.html

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The Movie Philadelphia: Sanitization of the AIDS Crisis?

Philadelphia release poster

I remember going to the movie theater with a friend in 1993 to see the much-hyped movie Philadelphia which purported to be the first “mainstream” movie to address the AIDS crisis. Tom Hanks starred as a closeted (at work) upper middle class lawyer, Andrew Beckett, who is fired by his prestigious law firm because he is suffering from the disease. Denzel Washington starred as an African-American lawyer, Joe Miller, who overcomes his own homophobia to serve as Beckett’s attorney when he decides to sue. Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in that movie.
 

Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in Philadelphia

I won’t go over the plot details, but in hindsight, I do wonder, as many critics have noted, if the movie did indeed the sanitize the ultimate rawness of the crisis, not just because of its target audience, but because of deeper issues that connect to race, social class, and gender/sexual orientation.

I did mention Beckett’s profession, a lawyer, but he practices in a “good old boys” corporate law firm. The point may be that AIDS can affect anyone. In fact, the film does make this point in a quite moving moment when an AIDS victim from a blood transfusion who testifies at Beckett’s trial proclaims in a voice of soft empathy, “I am not different from him.” But Beckett possesses access to quality health care; he can even afford a specialist in cosmetics to help him cover his lesions; and he lives in an expensive loft with a life partner. His family is loving and supportive; in fact, when he visits his childhood home, Norman Rockwell should have been there to paint the landscape and the event.
 

Joanne Woodward in Philadelphia

But, and here’s the rub, there’s an implication that this white picket fence life would have continued had he not descended into the gay underworld of adult movie theaters. There’s a scene that shows him encountering a stranger sexually in one of those establishments, and one could too easily infer he is reaping what he has sown. But it’s more than that, as the movie’s message is to not blame the victim, but I think the contrast here between the “good life” of Andrew Beckett characterized by monogamy, a loving family, and, until he gets fired, a career in a white heterosexual male world, and the “rough” life of so many other gay men, characterized by promiscuity, family rejection, and marginalized employment, is obvious.

The lesions on Andrew’s face thus expose the awful truth which might not have come to the surface if they had not appeared and led to his loss of livelihood and his subsequent fight for justice and ultimately, life.

And the irony that his advocate is a homophobic African-American man from a lower social and professional class hinges upon the racial and class divides that affect not just Beckett, but other characters in the movie. For example, in the trial, an African-American paralegal, comments that the managing partner in the firm, played with true good old boy condescending assholery by Jason Robards, asked her to remove her long, dangling earrings because they were too “ethnic:”
 

Jason Robards in Philadelphia

Joe Miller: Have you ever felt discriminated against at Wyatt Wheeler?
Anthea Burton: Well, yes.
Joe Miller: In what way?
Anthea Burton: Well, Mr. Wheeler's secretary, Lydia, said that Mr. Wheeler had a problem with my earrings.
Joe Miller: Really?
Anthea Burton: Apparently Mr. Wheeler felt that they were too..."Ethnic" is the word he used. And she told me that he said that he would like it if I wore something a little less garish, a little smaller, and more "American."
Joe Miller: What'd you say?
Anthea Burton: I said my earrings are American. They're African-American.

Touche! Anthea takes back her dignity with humor, but ultimately, her race and gender determine her station in a world dominated by powerful, white, heterosexual men.

Gender/sexual orientation, race and social class actually collide but don’t coalesce in the famous scene when the desperately ill Andrew Beckett sings along to Maria Callas singing the aria “La mamma morta” from Andrea Chenier. The aria ends on a note of transcendent love, the “sublime Amor” that ends up for the heterosexual main characters as a pact of death. Beckett is alone, tethered to an IV, and Joe Miller is a spectator: he deals in messy personal injury and death for the public, but his personal life is the heterosexual ideal of monogamy and procreation, not the messy and dangerous homosexual intoxication of love and sex and death.
 

Opera scene in Philadelphia

Overall, I obtain a mixed message from this movie in hindsight. At one level, it attempted to show that AIDS was a disease that affected everyone and that people suffered discrimination for simply contracting it. But I also found some implications in the film that showed not just how the divisions of race, gender/sexual orientation, and social class can profoundly affect the fate of a person with AIDS, but that the movie affirms these divisions in a way that clashes with its supposed message of inclusive justice.

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